James Baldwin Matters

There’s a reason why Ta-Nehesi Coates is often compared to James Baldwin, and there’s a reason why Baldwin’s work is so relevant in the age of Black Lives Matter.

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally published on 15 December 2015, but it’s continued relevance on MLK Day and every day makes it worthwhile to revisit.

Quincy Troupe: How do you think white Americans feel now that they’re in this economic crisis?James Baldwin: They’re not thinking about it.

Troupe: What?

Baldwin: They’re not thinking about it. Americans don’t think of such things. They try and get out of it. They hope it’ll go away. And luckily they began to realize that maybe [Ronald] Reagan has to go, too. But they hope it all goes away. Because it’s like a bad dream for them.

Troupe: Won’t they do anything to help it go away?

Baldwin: No. Because they don’t know how. They don’t know how they got into it or, worse, won’t recognize how. I don’t know. They don’t know how they got into the chaos of their cities, for example. But they did it. Now, how and why did they do it? They did it because they wanted their children to be safe, to be raised safely. So they set up their communities so that they wouldn’t have to go with black children, whom they fear, and that dictates the structure of their cities, the chaos of their cities and the danger in which they live.

…I watched it happen, I know because I watched it happen. And all this, because they want to be white. And why do they want to be white? Because it’s the only way to justify the slaughter of the Indians and enslaving the blacks – they’re trapped. And nothing, nothing will spring the trap, nothing. Now they’re really trapped because the world is present. And the world is not white, and America is not the symbol of civilization. Neither is England. Neither is France. Something else is happening which will engulf them by and by. You, Quincy, will be here, but I’ll be gone. It’s the only hope the world has, that the notion of Western hegemony and civilization be contained.
— James Baldwin, The Last Interview (1987)

It’s effortless to conclude that the year 2015 in non-fiction belonged pretty much to Ta-Nehisi Coates. His Between the World and Me garnered just about every accolade standing, including the National Book Award, and his body of work as a reporter and cultural observer for The Atlantic netted him a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius grant”. His body of work, especially Between the World and Me, seems to be divinely in step with the urgency of the day. It adds context and perspective to understanding the racial imbalance that Black Lives Matter is confronting, and it would be a recognizable jumping-off point should any presidential debate ever feel brave enough to discuss that imbalance openly.

But Coates must share those voice-of-the-year honors with the person to whom he is the most often compared. The comparisons most likely would have happened whether or not Toni Morrison stated it quite this plainly on the book’s back cover: “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly, it is Ta-Nehisi Coates… This is required reading.”

Coates, of course, is not the first creator of culture to be dubbed “the (insert name of legend) of our times.” And no, those comparisons are never fair, to either the current creator or the legend. But in this case, it’s quite useful and revealing.

Most obviously, there’s the structure of Between the World and Me: a book-length essay written to the next generation about the state of racial relations and justice in America, reminiscent of Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963). No one can deny having someone of Morrison’s stature invoke someone of Baldwin’s stature got the attention of many people who’d read little of Coates’ previous work. But Morrison invoking Baldwin to praise Coates turned out to be as much about the former as the latter. It was another piece of a year that provided many chances to reconsider Baldwin’s work itself.

One writes out of one thing only – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.
— James Baldwin, “Notes of a Native Son”

The first was the reprinting of “A Report From Occupied Territory“, a 1966 essay for The Nation included in the magazine’s 150th anniversary issue. Baldwin revisits his native Harlem to survey the aftermath of the 1964 riot that resulted in six young black men (who would come to be known as the Harlem Six) being charged with murder.

It’s hard to say which is more important to notice: Baldwin’s power to express the outrage his journalism and observation leave with him; or the all-but-seamless transfer of such outrage to the New York City, 50 years later, of Eric Garner and “I Can’t Breathe”. He makes it clear that stop-and-frisk laws are not a recent development. He excoriates the hand-wringing of Washington politicians who beg him to speak for the entire black race, and hope he might suggest what could be done to keep the race from boiling over in rage yet again. And he incisively expresses the very foreboding that some Between the World and Me reviewers took Coates to task for vis-à-vis black folks’ belief that any of this might change:

These things happen, in all our Harlems, every single day. If we ignore this fact, and our common responsibility to change this fact, we are sealing our doom.

Reading this essay all these years later makes evident just how much Baldwin’s tone still resonates. He speaks directly; his erudition clarifies and specifies, not obfuscates. He speaks personally; this is not an op-ed dashed off before lunch but a searing cry from the gut. He’s not a disinvested observer – not just because he’s a native Harlemite, but more because he’s a black man who’s seen this way too often in way too many other places. He feels his observations and experiences in his marrow and speaks fearlessly from this place because that’s the only way he knows how to live life.

His is the voice, in more ways than one, of the witness: in the reportorial sense of a journalist filing a first-hand account, but with the moral surety of a congregant testifying his faith.

It is that sense of witness that connects Baldwin’s work to the thousands who have taken to social media to rail about and battle the injustices of today. They, too, speak as witnesses, they too speak from their gut. They, too, are not disinvested observers – often, the outrage is happening right where they live, adding a special sense of urgency and poignancy to their words. They may not be as skilled a writer as Baldwin (face it, few are), but they have no shortage of passion and fury needing to be channeled and have more opportunities to do so and be heard than Baldwin, who died in 1987, ever could have imagined.

Of the multitudes within the literature of black protest who have written truth to power, Baldwin’s life seems closest to the world we live in now. Of course, his day was not all that long ago. More than that, he wrote and spoke as he lived, unapologetically. He made no secret of his homosexuality. He embraced every opportunity to engage people in close conversation about the issue of race. He was a citizen of the world. There was a deep sense of humanity in everything he wrote.

He’s been gone just long enough to be discovered by a new generation of readers and activists without seeming like a relic from some other dimension. Unfortunately, that’s in large part because some things haven’t changed since he wrote his best-known works. The America of his time was a divided culture very much on the precipice and stepping away from that point, his work tried to tell people, was dependent on recognizing and doing something about those divisions, at long last. Sadly, the America of 2015 isn’t very far from that place at all.

There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.
— James Baldwin, “Faulkner and Desegregation”

There was a time when Baldwin fell out of fashion. Critics didn’t universally hold his later work in high regard. Some were challenged or otherwise offended by his homosexuality; Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice pretty much said that Baldwin wasn’t man enough to be a true warrior for black liberation. For a writer of his stature and accomplishment, it seems odd that to date there have only been two major biographies, James Campbell’s Talking at the Gates: a Life of James Baldwin (1991) and David Leeming’s James Baldwin: a Biography (1994).

Scholarly interest in Baldwin has been on the uptick in recent years and is now coming to the forefront. Most notable is Douglas Field’s All Those Strangers: The Art and Lives of James Baldwin, which looks at Baldwin through a number of prisms – not just race and sex, but also politics and his life as an American expat. Baldwin was more than just a writer and speaker of racial polemics, or a novelist, or an openly gay black man, or a native New Yorker who spent his final years in the quiet French village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence. He was all those things and more. Field doesn’t attempt to tie the various aspects of Baldwin all together with a grand unified bow but looks at how each of those aspects influenced and played out in his writing.

Field begins by looking at Baldwin’s early work as a book reviewer and critic emerging from the American left. Even then, he was no lockstep thinker, notes Field; his first published piece criticized the Russian writer Maxim Gorky for placing politics above art. After emigrating to Paris (for the first time) in 1948, he wrote the essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel”, which was his first whack at synthesizing art, race, and politics. From that point, Field asserts, Baldwin all but severed his roots in the New York Intellectual school of the ’30s and ’40s.

By 1960, the Federal Bureau of Investigation decided to take a serious interest in this left-leaning black man who had left the country, associated with figures it deemed questionable and published a novel about love and gay men (Giovanni’s Room, 1956). It opened up a file on Baldwin and maintained it until 1974, to the tune of 1,884 pages.

The FBI tracked Baldwin closely as his star as a commentator and lecturer rose in the early ’60s. It analyzed his writings and his place within the black literary landscape of the time, followed him from speech to speech, and even wondered aloud how to exploit his sexuality. Field cites an exchange in the margins of one of the pages, in which FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover asks, without either luridness or irony, “Isn’t Baldwin a well-known pervert?”

Baldwin, for his part, gave as good as he got, openly boasting of a book (that would never be) he was writing about the FBI who was writing about him. (Baldwin was hardly the only black writer the FBI studied: William Maxwell’s F.B. eyes: How J. Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, also out in 2015, traces in detail the FBI’s work as literary critics of black writers from Claude McKay to Lorraine Hansberry.)

Be it regarding race politics, sexual politics or international politics, Field finds Baldwin to be an intricate study. That’s not to say he was inscrutable, except perhaps in public discussion of his private life. Baldwin’s thinking never stopped evolving, and even as he held to his basic core principles as an artist and activist, the relationship between his thinking, his experiences and his writing never stopped evolving, either.

Given the range of what he wrote and how long he worked, it would be hard to point to one definitive Baldwin piece — The Fire Next Time may simply be the title history remembers best. To read Field’s extensive analysis, there couldn’t possibly be any such thing, and to appreciate him at all requires getting to know “all those strangers called Jimmy Baldwin”, as Baldwin himself described them.

For those seeking a deeper dive into aspects of Baldwin’s life, there’s even more. Ed Pavlic looks at the role of music in Baldwin’s writing, along with correspondence between Baldwin and his brother David, in Who Can Afford to Improvise? James Baldwin and Black Music, the Lyric and the Listeners (Fordham University Press). Coming soon is Jules Farber’s look at Baldwin’s final years in France, and his closeness with other black artists of his day, in James Baldwin: Escape From America, Exile in Provence (Pelican), as is a new anthology of Baldwin’s work.

In the meantime – and not necessarily because of any Coates-related interest – Baldwin is showing up everywhere. His words are being deployed anew against the exercise, subconscious or not, of white privilege. Colleges are holding reading and lecture series based on his works. Stew and his band The Negro Problem recently performed the song-cycle Notes of a Native Song, his reaction to Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”. The stage backdrop? Baldwin Photoshopped into iconic photos of Robert Johnson and the Beatles. His visage is also included in a new line of T-shirts that imagines universities named after famous black activists; “the University of Baldwin”, appropriately enough, is located in Saint-Paul-de-Vence.

For a palpable sense of Baldwin’s renewed relevance, one need look no further than the turnout should the documentary James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket come to town. Karen Thorson wrote, produced and directed the 1990 examination of Baldwin’s life; a digitally remastered version is currently making the rounds. Thorson assembled the film without narration, relying on file footage and interviews with Baldwin’s brother, confidants, and contemporaries, plus readings by Maya Angelou of his work. Suffice it to say that “all those strangers called Jimmy Baldwin” are on full display here.

By “palpable”, I refer to the standing-room-only crowd for a screening at the Black Cinema House on Chicago’s South Side in late November. The energy in the audience was focused and intense through every soundbite and piece of file footage the film revealed (fortunately for Thorsen and anyone eager to know more about the writer and his world, there’s a ton of Baldwin on camera, in a variety of contexts and locales). We erupted in spontaneous recognition and applause after this epic piece of shade-throwing and mic-dropping, from The Dick Cavett Show in 1968:

With the hype over Coates’ book putting Baldwin’s name back in the mix, and social justice issues putting his ideas back in the mix, we weren’t just going to see a cool film. We were on a pilgrimage, to celebrate and hear from this brother from another time who is speaking to our time so righteously. We hung on his every word.

“Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.”
— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Coates freely admits Baldwin’s influence on his writing and thinking, but he didn’t fully get him when he first read Baldwin as a student at Howard University, he told The Guardian. (How Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letter to his son about being black in America became a bestseller, 20 September 2015) It wasn’t until reconciling the death of his college friend at the hands of a black cop, and realizing what that could mean for his own son, that everything clicked:

Post- Between the World and Me, everyone wants a piece of Coates. He’s been summoned to the White House (as was Baldwin), and he’s been declared Public Intellectual #1. However, in November he told the New York Times, “I really try to emphasize that this is not who I am, this is not why I do what I do. The best part of writing is really to educate yourself. I don’t want to be anybody’s expert. I came in to learn.”

Baldwin, on the other hand, never shied away from the moment. As the existence of the Price of the Ticket doc makes clear, he spoke on TV, for journalists and in front of audiences freely and often during the years he was deemed the go-to Voice on Black People. But he also grappled with the role of being a celebrity, telling the New York Times in 1984 that celebrity is “…almost a garment I wear… I have some idea what I’m doing on that stage; above all, I have some idea what sustains me on that stage. But the celebrity is not exactly Jimmy, though he comes out of Jimmy and Jimmy nourishes that, too.”

Baldwin’s relationship with fame was as complicated as the other aspects of his life. All
those years in the eye of so many storms might have been why he found Saint-Paul-de-Vence so appealing as a place where he could be the least complicated thing he was: a writer.

While the praise for Between the World and Me and the rest of Coates’ work is richly deserved, we must especially single out the gumption it took to dig inside himself, make sense of his anger and his experience and his dreams, and craft something so personal and yet so universal. A lot of the attention to Between the World and Me came after, as prompted by Morrison, the realization that no one had attempted so daring a feat since Baldwin and The Fire Next Time.

Between the World and Me is much more memoir-ish than The Fire Next Time. In some ways, it’s an expansion and continuation of Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons and an Unlikely Road to Manhood (2004), which focused on his upbringing in Baltimore. It’s immensely well-crafted and powerful. In its quality as literature, it captures why so many have since been called to Baldwin. We may turn to him today because of what he wrote. But once there, we yearn for more because of how he wrote: with uncommon elegance, conviction and rigor.

And hope, too. Baldwin never stopped believing that a better America was possible. It would take work, he knew, a lot of it. He concludes The Fire Next Time to his nephew, “You know, and I know, that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too soon. We cannot be free until they are free.” He used his words to will white America towards that freedom as best he could, until his dying day.

Coates has made a similar point in his seminal Atlantic essays, “The Case for Reparations” and “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”. But those articles, as brilliant and searing as they are as research and reportage, don’t bear the majesty of hope and forgiveness of much of Baldwin’s work, even at its most guarded in its optimism.

Surely, we’ll all be interested in whatever Coates has to say next, even if it’s as removed from Between the World and Me as the reimagining of Marvel’s Black Panther comic book character would seem to be. But let’s be content with him being this generation’s Ta-Nehesi Coates. There’s no need for him to be this generation’s James Baldwin. The one we’ve had all along will do just fine.